The Spiritual Exercises. The Spirit of 1776. Spirit of an age, Zeitgeist. We’ve got spirit! A spirited opposition. Spiritual awakening. Spiritual warfare. The Spirit of Christmas Past. Esprit de corps. Spirit possession. Spirit Airlines. Holy Spirit. Espírito Santo, Brazil. “Whoa, spirit / Watch the heavens open (yeah) / Spirit, can you hear it callin’?” sings Beyoncé. Karl Marx: We are infused by the spirit of the state. Émile Durkheim’s spirit of society. Conception among the Arunta, wrote Sigmund Freud, is experienced as a reincarnated spirit entering the mother’s body. Spiritism. Smells like teen spirit. Spirit-writing. Spirited away. Such a free spirit . . . That’s the spirit! Ancestor spirit. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. “Shop Esprit for dresses, tops, pants, skirts, shoes and accessories.”

Spirit gives a name to outside forces that impinge on inner will. Even more, it undoes the very idea of a discrete split between inner and outer. It renders the self elusive, as David Hume described: “when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself . . .” Spirit gives the lie to the North Atlantic myth of the autonomous solo agent. I am writing these words, but spirit serves notice that “I” am a crossroads of roles, an inheritance, a history, a language, a marketplace. Spirit demands that usually hard-to-see constraints, desires, and influences be seen. It remakes individuals as dividuals, multi-personated bodies. That it gathers all of this otherness into one lexical frame is, to be sure, a solution that generates new problems of interpretation. Spirit’s many forms spiral out like breath (pneuma, ruah), making it often hard to read. It seems we can only touch it when it’s held in things: in the body of a Pentecostal worshipper who “gets the Spirit”; in a lively Kongo statue (nkisi) that encloses the dead; in the sound vibrations of a voice from beyond. Like breath, spirits act on their surround even as they cover their traces, dissipating without ever really disappearing. Spirits condense, twist, and engage each other. Esprit-brand accessories are infiltrated by the Holy Spirit—purses and pants now move upon the face of the waters. Teen spirit is infilled by ancestor spirits and team spirit; spirit-writing holds spirited opposition in reserve. The spirit of the state is fortified by The Spiritual Exercises. Like wind or breath, spirits make ionic bonds, grabbing electrons from each other’s circuits to form new semantic clouds.

In this sense, spirit is never only gaseous or metaphysical. It always links up with things, like airline, writing, teen, face of the waters, pants. Then, too, spirit moves in verbs like incorporate, possess, descend, hover, fill, and have. And spirit settles near adjectives like holy, ancestral, or free. Verbs and adjectives materialize and spatialize an otherwise vaporous word. They turn spirit tangible, push it into text and flesh incarnate. The fact that spirits must “incorporate” or be “exercised” grounds the experiences and interpretations gathered under spirit. People who work with spirits describe the arrivals of gods or ancestors in equally physical terms: Spirits “manifest” or “descend.” Those possessed are described as “being turned,” “rolled,” “mounted,” or “leaned on.” All these metaphors of weight, force, and directionality remind us that spirit is rendered present through shifts in material form. Any ethnographic study of spirit should start with the stuff.

Spirit possesses, but it is also possessed of its own social histories. It was often leveraged to mark differences between supposedly permeable and bounded persons. Immanuel Kant began to work out his opposition to spirited bodies in early writings on the mystic visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, in a 1766 text translated as Dreams of a Spirit Seer. His complaint against Swedenborg focused on spirit’s seemingly antidemocratic, private interests, its special revelation. Why should only some receive it, and what kind of civil society would such unevenness build? Ongoing spiritual revelations to a select charismatic few, or “fancied occult intercourse with God,” might subvert values of equality based on equal knowledge available to all. What hope can there be for a public, shared standard of morality and truth, if spiritual elites hoard all the special knowledge?

The old notion of spirit as a marker of alterity and political risk has hardly abated. When the House of Representatives stenographer Dianne Reidy abruptly grabbed the microphone in Congress on October 16, 2013, possessed by the Holy Spirit, she was quickly dragged out by security. Such spirited hyperagency, the excess of persons in a given body acting in political or judicial space, was dangerously opaque. Legal or political personhood, it seems, can barely tolerate spirit, requiring instead the special effect of a singular person, a forensic individual, an autonomous, reliable, contractually and legally liable person. Law, not to mention academe, seems to desire a certain threshold of autonomous individual personhood, purified of the pernicious interference of spirit. When such autonomous individuals are lacking, they have to be made.

But if spirit marked difference, it also sometimes helped to establish a shared humanness across groups. The chief merchant of the Dutch West India Company, Willem Bosman, in 1705 described the port of Ouidah, in West Africa, as chock-full of spirit: “To conclude the Subject of their Religion, I must add, that they have a sort of Idea of Hell, the Divel, and the Apparition of Spirits. And their Notions, concerning these, are not very different from those of some People amongst us.” Bosman’s discovery of African “religion” depended on locating its likeness with European practices. He found a resemblance in their overlapping repertories of spirits. An overabundance of spirit allegedly signaled Africa’s difference—comprised of too-permeable, and thus irrational persons—but the presence of “spirits,” at least to people like Bosman, suggested that Europeans and Africans shared overlapping religious experiences.

Spirit as a capacious cipher of outside forces impinging on individuals’ interior lives (note the spatial terms that mark out a specific human physiology) has long divided and joined human kinds, fissuring allegedly autonomous and permeable humans, the latter category often applied to women, so-called primitives, or the criminally deviant. But spirit has also, if less often, cast certain persons or groups’ special gifts into relief and elevated such persons for special status, variously as shamans, possession priests, inspired warriors, and charismatic leaders. If spirit-knowledge could serve to distinguish and set certain leaders and specialists apart from the rank and file, it could also subvert and shuffle hierarchies. Hume, to wit, thought spirit and religious enthusiasm could be a friend to democracy, because direct revelations, or spirit-knowledge, could circumvent the priestly and political status quo. Think of all the mystics, especially women, who gained the right to speak through their visions.

Still, I’m not so sure. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Feodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor proclaiming that people want only to be relieved of their unbearable freedom, and ready to offer a “spirit of self-annihilation.” A plague of leaders claiming special dispensation now spans the globe, only too happy to unburden us of free will—in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Israel, the United States, Great Britain, Venezuela, Russia, Zimbabwe, China, Turkey, the Philippines . . . Wielding the spirits of the state and an imagined gilded past, presidents, prime ministers, and dictators offer to relieve citizens of their individual powers of dissent. We should be wary of spirit as deployed to buttress authoritarianism or the evasion of accountability, compared with the mediations of spirits that allow the powerless to speak and act. The challenge is to recognize the difference.

But good luck with that! “Spirit” names an impinging, unknown excess acting in us, the clouds of input passing through us, and that we also pass through. The ability to name and define those inchoate forces remains an elusive goal. Oddly, it is for just that reason that spirit enlivens religious traditions, whose participants come together to disagree about spirits’ nature, place, and message. Because religious traditions are, among other things, loose agreements on what to disagree about, spirit is as usefully fuzzy as it is endlessly productive.